What's the skinny on these $400 tune-ups that auto dealers offer?

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Mar 01, 1997

Dear Tom and Ray:

I need your help! I know this is a very basic question, but I hope you'll
answer it anyway. I drive a 1993 Honda Civic four-door (great car, knock on
wood; I haven't had a lick of trouble with it outside of a battery
replacement). Now that I'm a single woman fending for myself, can you tell
me the skinny on these $400 tune-ups that auto dealers offer? Are they
really worth it, or am I better served by just changing the oil regularly
and replacing the spark plugs once a year? Also, what's the difference
between an oil change at the dealership, a Quick Lube joint and Joe's
Repair Shop down the road? -- Christa

TOM: What's the difference? About 10 bucks, Christa, and the cleanliness of
the waiting room. Other than that, not much.

RAY: These "$400 tune-ups" are a delicate matter, Christa. Our lawyers have
urged us to use extreme caution when discussing these services, and under
no circumstances are we to use the word "scam" when referring to them. So
we will be extraordinarily careful here, and use other, less inflammatory
words ...

TOM: Like "complete rip-off"?

RAY: No! Here's our dilemma. We believe that once your odometer hits 30,000
miles or so, it IS worth doing these "services" (the details of which are
listed in the back of your owner's manual).

TOM: During these recommended services, many things are checked, tightened,
topped up, adjusted, diagnosed and/or replaced. It's a lot like a physical
exam. If you catch a heart problem early, you may be able to avoid a
coronary bypass or a heart transplant later on. So we wholeheartedly
endorse the manufacturer- recommended services for cars with 30,000 miles
or more on them.

RAY: The problem is that we see little reason to perform these expensive
services on cars with fewer than 30,000 miles. I mean, would you do a
complete heart workup on every 25-year-old? Sure, you might find coronary
artery disease in one person in every 50,000, but is it worth charging the
other 49,999 $1,000 each for the tests? It is if you're the guy doing the
tests (i.e., the dealership), I guess.

TOM: And here's where it gets really complicated. While it's our opinion
that all you need to do for regular maintenance in the first 30,000 miles
or so of ownership is change the oil and check the fluids, your
manufacturer may disagree. And since the manufacturer administers the
warranty, you may be jeopardizing your warranty by skipping these required

RAY: So what do you do? Well, it's your call, Christa. There are two ways
you can go. You can "take your chances." You can change the oil and filter
every 5,000 miles, check all the fluids on a regular basis for the first
30,000 miles, and hope nobody ever bothers you about it. But be aware that
even though we've never heard of a case like this, the manufacturer is
within his legal rights to deny you warranty coverage if your "negligence"
(i.e., your failure to maintain the vehicle) contributed to the mechanical

TOM: So if you don't want to take that kind of risk, the other thing you
can do is not go to the dealer. Any qualified mechanic should be able to
perform your regular services, and you'll save a lot of money doing it that
way. And, by law, this has NO effect on the warranty. Just bring him your
owner's manual so he'll have the list of the items the manufacturer
recommends at your current mileage. And keep a receipt (or have him "stamp
your book" in case you ever need to prove that the work was done.

RAY: And no matter which approach you take, after 30,000 miles, do get the
services done as specified in your owner's manual. And no matter who you go
to -- whether it's the dealer or your local mechanic -- make sure it's
someone you trust to actually do the work. There's so much "checking" of
things called for in these "services" that an unscrupulous mechanic could
easily get away with not doing most of the work.

TOM: And while $275 for a 30,000-mile checkup might seem cheap when
compared to the $400 they get at the dealership, it's actually expensive if
all they're doing is changing your oil and parking your car back in the

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